Pete Gaynor FEMA

Acting FEMA administrator Pete Gaynor speaks at the CDP at McClellan in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

If he could do his career over again, Federal Emergency Management Agency acting director Peter Gaynor says, he’d spend more time urging people to get insurance — particularly flood insurance.

FEMA assistance alone is rarely enough to help a homeowner recover from a disaster, Gaynor said in a speech in Anniston on Wednesday.

“The federal government does not make you whole,” Gaynor said to a crowd of about 250 people at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness at McClellan. “Is that a surprise to anybody? We do not make you whole.”

Gaynor, a retired Marine and former head of Rhode Island’s emergency management division, has run the nation’s disaster-response agency since former director Brock Long resigned in March amid questions over his use of government vehicles. Alabama native Jeff Byard is expected to become permanent director following confirmation hearings in the Senate.

Gaynor spoke at CDP’s National Preparedness Symposium, a gathering for emergency managers from around the country. While the FEMA director’s appearance there was unusual, first responders routinely converge on the center, one of the nation’s top disaster-preparedness training centers.

The FEMA director told the administrators they should do more to encourage the public to get properly insured — managing public expectations about what FEMA assistance can actually do for them.

As local residents learned after last year’s Jacksonville tornado,federal assistance typically covers only a homeowner’s uninsured losses. Gaynor said few people in a disaster qualify for the full FEMA benefit, which is only about $34,500. In recent disasters, the average individual payout was less than $4,000, he said. Insurance pays more, and the money comes quicker, he said.

Lack of flood coverage is a big part of the problem, he said. Only 30 percent of people in high-risk areas have flood insurance, he said, and only 4 percent of the public as a whole has that insurance. Yet flooding happens in every state, not just hurricane-prone areas, he said.

“The odds are that you’ll have a flooding event during the life of your mortgage,” he said. Emergency officials haven’t helped with talk of “500-year” and “1,000-year” flood events, he said. He said few people in the agency know what sort of scientific justification lies behind those terms, and they confuse people about the likelihood of a follow-up flood.

“We’re trying not to use those terms,” he said.

Gaynor encouraged emergency managers to do more to urge passage of better building codes at the local and state level, something he said the federal government has little ability to regulate.

“It has to start from the bottom up,” he said.

He also urged emergency managers to push for state funding of already-existing disaster relief funds.

“If you have a disaster relief fund in the state that’s on the books but unfunded, maybe you can get some funding,” he said.

Federal law requires states to pay for a certain amount of disaster recovery — in Alabama, it’s about $7 million — before federal financial help will kick in.States are expected to keep funds on hand to cover the cost of recovery that comes in under the threshold. Alabama has created a fund, but put no money into it, emergency officials have said.

The fund gap had Jacksonville officials nervous in the weeks after the 2018 tornado – worried that local officials would have to pick up a multi-million dollar cleanup bill – but damage to Jacksonville State University pushed the state well over threshold.

Alabama Emergency Management director Brian Hastings told a reporter after the speech that the state has had recent disasters that fell under the $7 million mark. Among them was the Lee County tornado that killed 23 people in March. He said the storm was approved for federal funding only because of the high death toll.

“If we didn’t have a tremendous loss of life that would have been two, three million dollars worth of stuff that would be left for Lee County to pick up,” he said.

He cited other “dirt road disasters” in Decatur and Marion that didn’t meet the threshold but racked up large bills for the affected towns.

Asked if advocacy was a role emergency management directors can take on, Calhoun County Emergency Management director Michael Barton said there’s nothing wrong with sharing facts with policymakers.

“We have a role informing our elected officials about what those needs are,” Barton said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.